Foodborne illness, more commonly known as food poisoning, occurs when a person eats something that has been contaminated by pathogens or their toxins. These infectious organisms can make a person sick within hours and present a particular risk to children, older adults, pregnant women and anyone with a compromised immune system, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Long-Term Care. Food can become contaminated at any point during the food-production process or while being handled or cooked at home.
Symptoms of food poisoning
It can be easy to mistake food poisoning for other illnesses because symptoms can take anywhere from minutes to weeks to show up after consuming contaminated food. The signs typically include nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea and stomach pain or cramps. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends seeing a doctor if symptoms include bloody diarrhea, high fever (over 38.8 degrees C), frequent vomiting, dehydration or diarrhea that lasts longer than three days. While food poisoning usually only results in mild illness that lasts no more than a few days, some extreme cases can lead to chronic arthritis, kidney failure and brain and nerve damage.
How do I know I have food poisoning?
A doctor will usually be able to make a diagnosis after discussing the recent history with a patient, including length of illness, symptoms encountered and food consumed. According to the Mayo Clinic, a physical examination may be necessary to determine if there is any dehydration and patients may be required to provide blood and stool samples to confirm diagnosis and identify the infectious organism in question. In some cases, the doctor may need to consult with local health authorities to determine if there is an outbreak in the community.
How is food poisoning treated?
Treatment varies depending on the severity of symptoms, with most people feeling better in a few days without medical attention. If you think you have food poisoning, it’s a good idea to refrain from eating or drinking anything for a few hours to let your stomach settle. Other options that may increase comfort include sucking on ice chips, taking small sips of water or drinking clear soda or broth. When you feel ready to eat again, it is recommended to start with bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as crackers, bananas and rice and avoiding dairy products, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and fatty or seasoned foods.
Medical intervention, when needed, can involve:
- Replenishing fluids – Electrolytes lost to diarrhea and vomiting need to be replaced, particularly in vulnerable populations. An IV containing salt and other fluids may be required to reverse the effects of dehydration.
- Medication – Depending on the bacteria behind the infection, antibiotics may be prescribed. In pregnant women, prompt treatment prevents infection from affecting the baby. Antibiotics do not help infections caused by viruses, however, and other medications may be required.
How to prevent food poisoning
There are a number of precautions that can be taken to minimize the risk of a painful encounter with a foodborne illness. These include:
- Cleaning – Ensure you wash your hands, utensils and all surfaces with soap and water before and after preparing food, wash all produce before eating or cooking, and wash your hands after using the washroom
- Separating – Keep raw meats, fish and poultry away from other foods when storing or preparing; use separate cutting boards for raw food and vegetables; keep food covered prior to serving; keep raw meats separate from other items when grocery shopping and make these items last on your shopping list; store raw meat on the bottom shelf in your refrigerator and freeze raw meats that won’t be used within a few days; and thaw food in the fridge — not on the kitchen counter, as bacteria thrives at room temperature
- Cooking – Thoroughly cook food, paying close attention to the differing temperatures and durations required of different meats; don’t keep dairy and raw meat at room temperature for more than two hours and meat should be completely thawed before cooking
- Chilling – Keep perishables refrigerated; move leftovers to the refrigerator or freezer with two hours of eating; and put raw meat away immediately after returning from the grocery store
How common is food poisoning?
Around one in eight Canadians (or four million people) suffer the effects of contaminated food annually, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. It is estimated that roughly 11,500 people need to be hospitalized every year and around 240 people die from food-related illnesses. The norovirus is the main cause of foodborne illnesses, making an estimated one million people ill every year and hospitalizing around 1,180.
Dave Yasvinski is a Toronto-based writer.
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